Mountain out of a Molehill: The M&S Hijab Controversy

The recent Twitter furor in reaction to news of Marks & Spencer selling school hijabs.

 

Maajid Nawaz took to Twitter to argue that British high street retailer Marks & Spencer “facilitates medievalism” by selling hijabs under the “school uniform” category. But this suggests that Nawaz is aware of the exact circumstances surrounding young girls and their decisions to wear the hijab (who are told it is “immodest” not to, according to Nawaz). This effectively marginalizes all women who wear the hijab by implying they belong in the Middle Ages. It cannot be denied that the hijab is often imposed on young, impressionable girls, but associating the hijab with “medievalism” only portrays Muslim women as homogenous, backward, and fanatical, when for many, the hijab is an active choice.

Insinuating that all women must have been coerced into wearing the hijab during childhood is reductive and demeaning, undermining their agency and denying them a voice.

Another Twitter user, Julia Hartley-Brewer, stated that wearing the hijab is “extremist” and not a requirement of the Quran; despite the general consensus among Muslim scholars being that hijab is an obligatory garment prescribed for Muslim women. This, along with the acceptance of hijab as a religious symbol by the overall Muslim community, shows us that hijab is not in fact “extremist.” Moreover, the Quran is often only used as a general guideline, whilst more complex issues are clarified in the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him), in more detail and scrutiny, the hijab being one of these matters.

Alignment of the hijab with cultural “backwardness” due to countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia (which mandate the hijab as a compulsory dress code) is a gross generalization. These countries are not representative of all majority-Muslim states and simply cannot be used as a yardstick to measure the progress of a vast and burgeoning community of over 1 billion Muslims worldwide.

Those who claim to defend Muslim girls against “sexualization” fail to realize that the hijab is accepted by an overwhelming majority of Muslim women across the world. Girls from a young age can adopt the hijab from positive female role models in their lives, or for practical reasons, wear the garment for the recitation of the Quran or Salah (prayer). The hijab is a dress code prescribed by God, as outlined in the Quran, wherein modesty is emphasized for both men and women (it is important to note that men are the first to be told to lower their gaze). This is to free oneself from societal standards of beauty by prescribing to a higher, divine standard.

The hijab is not always as politically charged as some suggest; those on the periphery can attribute certain connotations to the garment whilst most Muslim women themselves regard the hijab as a symbol of universal sisterhood and belonging.

It is important to understand what the hijab means to its actual wearers. 

Excluding Muslim women from mainstream conversations about hijab only signals their increasing marginalization at the hands of the media. The significance of the hijab cannot be reduced to a simple tool of control — it is worn by a vast number of women all over the world, Muslim or otherwise. The complexity of its meaning varies from person to person and has evolved over time to signify a group identity, no different to the Sheitel, Kippah, or any other religious garment.